Samuel Beckett's brilliance as a dramatist--as the creator of Waiting for Godot
, Krapp's Last Tape
, and that despairing pas de deux Endgame
--has tended to overshadow his gifts as a novelist. Yet he's unmistakably one of the great fiction writers of our century. As a young man he took dictation (literally) from James Joyce
, and absorbed everything that myopic maestro had to offer when it came to Anglo-Irish prosody. Still, Beckett's instincts would ultimately steer him away from Joyce's delirious play with high and low diction, toward a more concentrated, even compulsive style. His earlier novels, like Murphy
, give us a taste of what was to come. But Beckett truly hit his stride with a trilogy of early-1950s masterpieces: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable
. Here he dispenses with all the customary props of contemporary fiction--including exposition, plot, and increasingly, paragraphs--and turns his attention to consciousness itself. Nobody has ever evoked the pain of existence, or the steady slide toward nonexistence, with such poetic, garrulous accuracy. And once you've attuned yourself to the epistemological vaudeville of Beckett's prose, he turns out to be the funniest writer on the planet--ever.
None of the three entries in the trilogy is exactly amenable to summary. It's fair to say, though, that Molloy is the easiest to read, with at least a bare-bones narrative and an abundance of comical set pieces. In one famous episode, the narrator spends page after page figuring out how to vary the sucking stones he carries in his pockets:
And while I gazed thus at my stones, revolving interminable martingales all equally defective, and crushing handfuls of sand, so that the sand ran through my fingers and fell back on the strand, yes, while thus I lulled my mind and part of my body, one day suddenly it dawned on the former, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim. The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once, and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense, long remained obscure.
This nutty ratiocination goes on for much, much longer, until the narrator loses patience and throws the stones away. And that's a fair encapsulation of Beckett's philosophy: he argues for the essential pointlessness of life--the solitary, wretched splendor of human existence--but does so in a comic rather than a tragic register, which ends up softening or even overpowering the bleakness of his initial premise. So Malone Dies
opens with a typically morbid mood-lifter ("I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of it all") and then makes endless comedic hay out of Malone's failure to keel over. And by the time we hit The Unnamable
, we're forced to wonder whether the narrator actually exists: "I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on." Happily, Beckett worried these same questions and hypotheses to the end of his career, with increasingly minimalistic gusto. But he never topped the intensity or linguistic brilliance of this mind-bending three-part invention. --James Marcus
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"Beckett is one of the most positive writers alive. Behind all his mournful blasphemies against man there is real love. And he is genuine: every sentence is written as if it had been lived."--"The New York Times Book Review" "[Beckett] possesses fierce intellectual honesty, and his prose has a bare, involuted rhythm that is almost hypnotic."--"Time" "Samuel Beckett is sui generis...He has given a voice to the decrepit and maimed and inarticulate, men and women at the end of their tether, past pose or pretense, past claim of meaningful existence. He seems to say that only there and then, as metabolism lowers, amid God's paucity, not his plenty, can the core of the human condition be approached...Yet his musical cadences, his wrought and precise sentences, cannot help but stave off the void...Like salamanders we survive in his fire."--Richard Ellmann "[Beckett] is an incomparable spellbinder...a serious writer with something serious to say about the human condition."--"The New York Times"